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Thursday, April 15, 2010
Updated: April 16, 9:12 AM ET
Precocious Cup performances

By Leander Schaerlaeckens
ESPN.com

Pele
Pele, just 17, had three goals and an assist in a 5-2 win over France in the 1958 World Cup semifinals.

There's nothing more grating than seeing a player who was born long after you were impress at the World Cup. Aside from making you feel old, it also offers unwelcome confirmation that your chances at a professional career in soccer have harshly and irrevocably expired.

Here, then, are seven prenatal prodigies whose performances -- unlike those of your own youth -- will stand the test of time.

5. Norman Whiteside and Giuseppe Bergomi, 1982
Thanks to his mere 17 years and 41 days on earth, Whiteside became the youngest World Cup participant ever when he lined up against Yugoslavia in 1982 in Spain, which was also his international debut. Entirely unfazed by his surroundings, the Northern Irish Manchester United striker happily threw his weight around as he played in all five of his home nation's games and helped it reach the second round of the tournament, in which he notched a splendid assist in a 4-1 loss to France.

In 1991, after 13 knee surgeries, Whiteside was told that a continuation of his soccer career could eventually take its toll on his ability to walk. So at 26, he retired.

Unlike Whiteside, Giuseppe Bergomi, 18, felt hugely intimidated making his debut at the tournament for Italy. But like Whiteside, Bergomi responded to being thrown into the deep end by swimming with the best of them, proving to be an unflinchingly reliable defender as Italy took the title.

Bergomi is remembered as one of the best defenders of all time -- with a snazzy mustache to boot.

4. Enzo Scifo, 1986
At just 20 years of age, playmaker Enzo Scifo dazzled as he masterminded Belgium's Cinderella run to fourth place of the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. Along with striker Jan Ceulemans and goalkeeper Jean-Marie Pfaff, the graceful Scifo sustained an improbable campaign, eliminating Spain and the Soviet Union, until at last Belgium ran into an even greater attacking talent in Diego Maradona and lost 2-0 in the semifinals.

The son of Sicilian immigrants, Scifo -- who had already been on the national team for two years before World Cup '86 -- would be named the best young player of the tournament. He never again shone quite so brightly as he did that summer in Mexico; Little Pele (as he was called in his youth) was a disappointment at Internazionale and failed to reach the absolute zenith of his sport. He did play in three more World Cups for Belgium.

Michael Owen
England's 18-year-old Michael Owen conjured one of the most spectacular goals in World Cup history in a 1998 match against Argentina.

3. Ronaldo and Michael Owen, 1998
Although he was only 21 during the 1998 World Cup, it was not Ronaldo's first. He'd also been on the victorious '94 Brazil team, though he never came off the bench. As the reigning and two-time World Player of the Year, expectations for Ronaldo -- already a firmly established superstar with Internazionale -- were sky-high in France. During this tournament, the skinny striker (unimaginable now) showed off a phenomenal combination of strength, ball control, speed and insouciance that he would never quite replicate in the years to come.

Ronaldo lit up the tournament with four goals and three assists, but before the final collapsed from some sort of seizure, which was never quite explained (but thought to be brought on by the immense pressure). He begged to play and ghost-walked his way through the final (France won 3-0) but nevertheless made an ineffable impression.

Another young speedster who flabbergasted onlookers in France was England's Michael Owen, 18, who caught the eye of one and all with one of the finest goals ever seen on the world stage. In the 16th minute of a second-round game against Argentina -- which would eventually be lost on penalties and would become famous for David Beckham's ejection -- Owen departed on a long slalom, starting at the halfway line, zipping past two of the best defenders in the world and beating the keeper with a perfect finish. Owen had already won his team a penalty (which was converted by Alan Shearer) in the game and scored and hit the post in England's second game of the tournament, having come off the bench.

2. Teofilo Cubillas, 1970
In 1970, El Nene -- better known as Peruvian midfielder Teofilo Cubillas -- just 21 years old, would waste no time in making his mark. Armed with a splendid shot, a destructive dribble and faultless technique, Cubillas would set alight the last World Cup that Pele would play in, leading to many comparisons between the two. Pele even went as far as naming Cubillas his successor.

Cubillas' five goals -- at least one in each of Peru's four games -- helped the unheralded side to an unexpected seventh place, and Cubillas into the soccer world's collective memory as one of its greatest talents. It wasn't until Peru ran into eventual champions Brazil in the quarterfinals that its run was halted. Cubillas would be voted the best young player and the third-best overall player of the tournament.

He would score five more goals in the 1978 tournament, making him the first player to score that many in two tournaments and one of the highest-scoring midfielders in World Cup history.

He would eventually take his act to the North American Soccer League, where he'd suit up for the Fort Lauderdale Strikers alongside George Best (a stint during which he once scored three goals in just seven minutes). Always noted for his remarkable scoring ability from the midfield, Cubillas would go on to score more than 500 times in his career.

1. Pele, 1958
Edson Arantes do Nascimento, called Pele for short, would become the youngest player ever to participate in a World Cup final, during the 1958 tournament in Brazil. He was 17 years and 249 days old on that day. By then, he already had logged a year with the national team, two years with his club team, Santos (where he would go on to score 1,091 goals in 1,115 competitive games), and a wonderful run-up to the final.

After missing the first two games of the tournament because of an injury, Pele's first game would come against the Soviet Union in the first round. Pele didn't find the net. It would be the last time that happened in the tournament. In the quarterfinals against Wales, he scored the winner in a 1-0 affair, becoming the youngest World Cup goal scorer ever. Against France in the semifinals, he scored three and doled out an assist in a 5-2 win. In the final, he scored two more -- once by flipping a ball over a defender and striking it before it hit the ground -- and hit the post as Brazil pipped the hosts, Sweden, to the title.

Pele -- who had learned to play soccer by kicking a grapefruit and a sock stuffed with newspapers -- would go on to become the only player to win three World Cups, in '58, '62 and '70.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at leander.espn@gmail.com.